Six Tips for Hiring a Small Business Lawyer
You intuitively know that you should have an ongoing relationship with a lawyer to help you prevent legal problems from hurting your business. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure as they say. You understand that if you wait for a legal problem to happen, that you will be caught scrambling to find a lawyer under a great deal of stress, with little time and at a big expense.
The good news is that there are many qualified, affordable attorneys out there and by using your common sense and a little effort you can find the right fit to protect your company and help it grow proactively and preventatively.
Certain considerations are so obvious and generic that you will find them set forth as part of a static list on the lawyer's website and brochures. Practice areas, biographies, articles, awards and all the self-serving feel good language: "At ABC, Esqs, we take the time to learn about you," "No matter your size, you are number 1" blah, blah, blah. Talk is cheap.
The key to finding the right fit is to get past all the marketing and establish a personal connection. When you find the right fit, you will not only have a trusted advisor that can protect you legally by helping you minimize risks and liabilities, but leverage an experienced legal professional to help you grow, recognize and take advantage of great business opportunities.
1. Personality Matters; Your's and the Lawyer's
For all you Godfather movie fans out there, realize that you are hiring your own consigliore and this is a person with whom you will be sharing a great deal of time and trust. Accordingly, you should make an effort to engage in an assessment of your own business style and seek out a lawyer that has a complimentary approach to yours.
What is your style? Are you a procrastinator? A multi-tasker that jumps from one fire to another? Are you project-oriented? A good delegator? Do you feel you are mostly looking for validation for your decisions or searching for guidance and a fresh set of eyes before you make them?
However, you identify yourself, what type of role do you want a lawyer to play with you? Do you want an attorney to impose deadlines for you? Do you want a lawyer that is more passive? Can you appreciate a devil's advocate or should the lawyer be more of a yes-man? Are you looking for purely a legal perspective or do you want business consulting as well?
Going to an initial consultation armed with some questions that will help you understand the lawyer's working style will help you find the right fit more than reading a bio, website and placing undue credibility in testimonials. I'm still waiting to see the appearance of the first negative testimonial of all time.
2. Your Industry
Certainly a lawyer that has deep experience in the nuances of your vertical market can be a valuable asset, especially in heavily regulated industries like banking and health care. However, this one factor should not always be a black and white litmus test.
Many legal transactions across disparate industries have common elements and the industry-specific considerations are easily discoverable by a competent attorney. As an experienced attorney who is also a serial entrepreneur, I have founded and managed businesses in several vertical markets, including telecom, mobile technology, entertainment, retail and sustainability consulting. If a business opportunity presents itself in a new or different industry, entrepreneurs like us are confident that we have the general business experience and acumen to be successful.
Similarly, with finding the right fit with your lawyer, if she hasn't represented fellow sword swallowers, you shouldn't automatically disqualify her from providing services to your sword swallowing venture. Maybe she is an authority on fat ladies and clowns. But seriously, the point is that lawyers are trained to research and find resources and answers.
The key here is to retain an attorney who demonstrates that their primary due diligence in commencing their attorney/client relationship with you will be to learn everything they can about how your business and your industry operates. It's not enough for them to dump piles of stuff about themselves and how wonderful they are on you; effective representation is about understanding and servicing the unique needs of your business.
As part of your screening, it may be a good idea that you tell the prospective lawyer what industry your business is in prior to meeting. That way you can see whether the attorney made any effort to learn about you and your company prior to the meeting. Personally, I have found that diligent preparation is the foundation for success.
3. Problem Solving
As both a lawyer and businessman, nothing frustrates me more than when office politics and the ubiquitous "cover my ass" attitude trumps problem solving and innovation in today's business world. If you share this feeling then you want to find a lawyer that does as well.
Legal risk should always be weighed against the likelihood of occurrence and the severity of the consequences. Legal activity should also be supported by a business case and placed within a hierarchy of priorities. Far too often lawyers are deal killers instead of dealmakers simply because they list risks instead of quantifying them. You should seek an attorney that thoroughly presents the risks, but does so in a way that provides context in consideration of your business goals.
Too often, attorneys see their role as telling business leaders the things they can't do instead of working with them to create and develop a way that they can achieve the same underlying goal. Just because one specific tactic is risky, doesn't mean that an alternate tactic is not fully ethical and legit. Having an attorney experienced in business is a valuable asset that can take a client beyond the "cover your ass" mindset and support a culture of innovation and growth.
4. Communication Skills
There are few things that annoy people more than doctors with lousy bedside manners. They will often look past this annoyance because they are in need of the best Doctor available for their situation. There are certain areas of the law where you may feel the same way.
If you are hiring a tax attorney, you want the biggest geek-genius with a pocket protector who gets excited when he sees spreadsheets. You don't care if you are bored to death because you know you are covered. However, when it comes to your business lawyer, who will be representing your business to others, you should want someone who not only has the smarts, but that is also a great communicator. You need someone who has the character, gravitas and charisma to bring people together and get deals done. After all, people do business with people they like; Sales 101.
Moreover, you should try to find a lawyer that fits well with your communication style. Personality and attitude are factors, but also consider the methods. Do you prefer emailing or do you wish to be more interactive? Do you like phone calls and in person meetings or are you a social media junkie? What kind of response times do you expect? Lay out your expectations and gauge the prospective lawyer's response.
Once again, you need to do a little self-assessment here. Some clients simply want to delegate and focus entirely on other activities. Others are self enrichment junkies and want to learn. In the same way, some attorneys just want to do their work and be left alone while others think it is important to educate and manage expectations.
No matter what your personal style is in this regard, you want to make sure that you work with an attorney that is capable of adapting. The more you know and the more your team knows, the better you can manage day-to-day situations that arise. Even if you are focused elsewhere, you want your attorney to be able to work closely with your different lines of business and help them prevent legal issues and problems. That may mean having the attorney train people on how they hire and fire, or market and sell. It helps to have an attorney that services your business; not just you.
A great way to gauge the lawyer's patience and manner in this regard is to go to the first consultation with a plan to have the lawyer provide detailed explanations about how they bill and how they communicate. Make them dig deeper and see how they react. Do they come off as a willing teacher that creates a good feeling or do they exhibit a lack of patience?
6. Trust Your Gut
Yes, the impossible to define matter of chemistry. If you have considered the previous 5 tips then you should have a feeling in your so-called gut about whether this relationship makes sense to you. If you are hiring a lawyer to deal with a specific one-off situation, then chemistry might not matter all that much. However, if you are hiring a trusted legal advisor to be an integral part of your team, you need to feel good about the relationship. Will this lawyer work well with your stakeholders, will she work well with you and will she represent your company in a positive light?
Set expectations and revisit them periodically. A good lawyer is an asset; not an expense. If you no longer feel that way it may be time for a change.
Trust Your Gut.